Sunday, December 10, 2017

Aleksandra Nikolaenko Wins the 2017 Russian Booker

Just when I was feeling like a slacker for not having posted about the 2017 Russian Booker Prize winner, I noticed that the Russian Booker site hasn’t posted any news about this year’s results, either. Hmm.

In any case, Aleksandra Nikolaenko won the prize for her Убить Бобрыкина. История одного убийства (To Kill Bobrykin. The Story of One Killing), which I described on my shortlist post as sounding thoroughly mysterious, like some sort of odd inner dialogue. It pains me that I’m not as excited about the book itself as I’d like to be after reading descriptions and comments: the general sense that the language is poetic and interesting is a big plus but I’ve also read that the book is repetitive and derivative, huge minuses since I value structure and, well, freshness so much. Of course I’ll give it a go, just as I’ll try the Melikhov and Novikov books, both of which are on my shelf. What makes me happy about Nikolaenko’s win is that Bobrykin is apparently her first published book and she’s the second woman to win a major literary award this year, following Anna Kozlova, who won the NatsBest for F20 (previous post). (I guess it’s obvious that this year’s absurdly woman-less 2017 Big Book shortlist still rankles me, isn’t it?)

Paradoxical though it may look, I’d been rooting for Vladimir Medvedev’s Zahhak, the only book on the Booker shortlist that I’ve read in full. It may not be fair to root for a book after not reading all of its competitors—though I read a small part of Malyshev’s Nomakh but simply couldn’t go on and read a large chunk (enough to be a short-to-moderate novel!) of Gigolashvili’s tome The Mysterious Year before the repetition did me in—but Zahhak is a very, very good book. I’m sure I’m more than a little biased after translating excerpts, an experience that always accentuates a good novel’s strengths, particularly when it’s a polyphonic text. Zahhak seems especially deserving of recognition because this award year felt rather short on my favorite kind of books: enjoyable and compelling literary novels with strong form, style, and content. On the bright side, I hauled home some very promising-looking (recent) books from Frankfurt and Saint Petersburg.

Also on the bright side: Zahhak won the Student Booker, which, by the way, already posted its results, here. The Student Booker’s shortlist differs from the regular Booker’s, too, so is worth a look.

Up Next: Big Book Award winners. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s thoroughly entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), an atmospheric detective novel that really plays on its setting in Leningrad.

Disclaimers: The usual. Translating Zahhak excerpts.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Anna Kozlova’s Sharp F20

Anna Kozlova’s F20, which won this year’s National Bestseller Award, feels like an antidote to a lot of things. Back in October, it was the perfect book for fighting inevitable boredom (not to mention weird service) on a transatlantic flight. And thinking now about Kozlova’s fictional account of rough realities—which also have a very darkly humorous side—makes a startling counterpoint to treacly Christmas music at the grocery store and posh holiday gift lists. F20 is smart, immediate, and relevant, making it a harsh but necessary reminder of personal and societal ills. The fact that F20 won the NatsBest is also a nice antidote to this year’s Big Book shortlist, which is both mysteriously lackluster and absurdly all-male… despite F20 making the Big Book longlist.

F20 is the medical code for schizophrenia. Kozlova’s narrator, the teenage Yulia, and her younger sister Anyutik both seem to have it, though only Anyutik, whose symptoms are more obvious, has been formally diagnosed. Yulia opens up right from the start, telling us on F20’s first page that there are broken locks on the little suitcase of genes she and Anyutik received. They come from a broken family, too, and are growing up with their grandmother, their mother, and her boyfriend Tolik, someone she knew way back when… and then ran into years later when she brought Anyutik to the psychiatric clinic for a shot. Tolik and Anyutik share a diagnosis.

To call F20 sad, depressing, or heartbreaking doesn’t get at half of what Kozlova achieves: the novel is all that but it’s flickers of humor, humanness, absurdity, and even suspense that raise it above simple chernukha, that pitch-black dark reality I’ve often found so compelling. Yulia describes cutting German words into her foot when the going gets tough. Anyutik says their mother never should have given birth to them. Yulia decides early on that she has no future or potential. Anyutik’s “best” voices of the six she hears come from a talking dog (shades of Gogol?) and Pushkin. Medication helps, however, and Anyutik serves as her older sister’s pharmacist. Anyutik’s a veritable PDR, knowledgeable on doses and side effects. Toward the end of the book, Yulia serves as a home health aide to an elderly woman and makes a comment about a generation gap in perceptions of carnations, a once-popular flower, now outmoded. The combination of details co-existing in F20 gives the book an almost documentary aesthetic.

Meanwhile, in the story’s longer arc, Yulia is growing up, having sex (and often uses graphic language, something I’ve seen criticized by readers; it’s a criticism I don’t share), learning to drink heavily, and not always coming home. Also meanwhile, Yulia’s grandmother accuses Yulia’s mother of being too permissive and Yulia’s mother even wonders where she and Yulia’s Polish boyfriend’s parents went wrong: why do their children smoke, drink, and have sex? She wonders how they could have allowed that but at least some of the answers seem pretty obvious: maybe the parents didn’t start picking up vices as early in life as their kids, but the four of them manage to knock back a bottle of vodka in forty minutes during a two-family summit. And the boyfriend’s parents even have a fistfight. None of this (none of this!) struck me as unlikely in Kozlova’s telling. Another scene ensues later on, when Yulia and Anyutik’s father visits… and the problems clearly go beyond these two families.

Although certain twists toward the end of F20 felt a tiny bit off to me—the denouement with the elderly client seemed a little hasty, as did Yulia’s visit with her father—that doesn’t negate the book’s effect. I still believe Yulia when she says she is (a) reality and nobody needs her. And I still feel her aloneness in the world, something she mentions after she’s carved the word finsternis into herself. NatsBest jury member Roman Senchin—whom I see as a master of chernukha, thanks to his The Yeltyshevswrote that Kozlova’s writings is “увлекательно написанная жуть” (roughly “fascinatingly written awfulness”), which is just right because what happens is awful but it’s also horribly absorbing. Even if you don’t read Russian, the paragraph he cites in his review—and, yes, I do believe his claim that he selected it randomly—has simple enough syntax that even an online translator will give you a sense of Kozlova’s talent for making such awful things so fascinating and so absorbing. I think it’s safe to say the paragraph also displays why Senchin cites critic Lev Danilkin, who called Kozlova’s writing “ультрашоковая,” “ultrashocking.” The combination of real storytelling and that shock makes for a reading experience that’s both engrossing and worthwhile, something (not to keep grousing but…) I wish I’d felt in more of my 2017 Big Book reading.

Disclaimers: The usual. NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental wrote Masha Regina, which I translated. Not a disclaimer, but huge thanks to translator Reilly Costigan-Humes, who came to the 2017 ALTA conference bearing books from Moscow for a bunch of book-starved, US-based translators he had never even met… This was a very generous thing to do—printed books are heavy, after all—and I’m especially grateful because F20 was among the books he hauled. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Reilly and his translation partner Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler in Minneapolis: they’ve already translated Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad (previous post on Zaven Babloyan’s Russian translation that I read) and they’re working on Lena Eltang’s Cartagena (another previous post). Hmm, they seem to like books with toponym titles. You can read more about Reilly and Isaac here.

Up next: Russian Booker and Big Book Award winners. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), which is set in Leningrad.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Translator’s Fall Travel Trifecta: Minneapolis, Frankfurt & St. Petersburg

Only today did I begin to understand why I stalled so long before writing about my first fall trip—Minneapolis for the American Literary Translators Association conference and Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair in early October—but everything makes sense now that I’ve returned from my last travel of the season. My second trip was to Russia, where I spoke at the St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum and at a Bukvoed bookstore in mid-November. Only now do I finally feel ready to set travel aside and settle in for winter. Despite temperatures in the 50s and no snow in sight. Without further ado, a whirlwind summary:

The Minneapolis trip got off to a beautiful start with a visit to the Museum of Russian Art, where curator Maria Zavialova (who has also translated American literature into Russian) gave a group of Russian translators a special tour of the “Born in the USSR: Paintings of Childhood and Youth” exhibit and a preview of the “Vladimir School of Painting” exhibit. I particularly enjoyed “Born in the USSR,” thanks to Zavialova’s contextualization of political aspects of the art and my own recognition of familiar details in many paintings, things like cacti in pots with typical decoration and objects that come up in translations.

The highlight of the ALTA conference came, rather unexpectedly, during the first time slot: I normally wouldn’t be glad for the cancellation of a panel on translating Russian obscenities but “Publishing and Promoting Korean Literature”—moderated by Chad Post (Open Letter Books) and featuring panelists Fiona McCrae (Graywolf Press), John Siciliano (Penguin Classics), Christine Dunbar (Columbia University Press), and Russell Scott Valentino (Autumn Hill Books)—combined my favorite topics by covering institutional/government agency support for translated literature, how editors choose books, marketing, editing, and (cliché alert!) success stories. I love learning about the book industry, particularly when the books are translations, so that’s my idea of fun, even at 9 in the morning. I think I must have thanked Chad at least three times.

I can’t say it was all downhill from there because, among other things, bilingual (mostly from the Russian) readings—where I read from my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina—were lots of fun, owing to what seemed like more humor than usual… Anne O. Fisher read from her translation of Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory, Harry Leeds read translations of Hannah Tomlets’s poetry, Morgan Shafter read his translation of an entire short story by Moshe Shanin, Katherine Young read translations of poems by poets including Irina Ermakova, and Alina Macneal read translations of (Polish) poetry by Julian Tuwim. The now-annual Russian translation workshop was as lively as ever, led this year by Anne Fisher and Shelley Fairweather-Vega—anyone’s invited to bring a brief item for discussion. It’s hard to pick out highlights beyond that, though I think Tim Parks’s keynote address would qualify, if only as a contrast with Lydia Davis’s (how can a conference have two keynote addresses, anyway? this has always bugged me…) staid and rather standard talk. I didn’t take notes at either and retained little; it’s rough to sit still at the end of the day. In any case, it’s the details of things like publishing Korean fiction in translation that inspire the notetaker in me: I took down data, names, and titles, and am especially looking forward to Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale, in Janet Hong’s translation for Graywolf. In other news, award winners included Anne Fisher and Derek Mong’s translation of The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, which won the Cliff Becker Book Prize; Esther Allen for her translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama, which won the National Translation Award in Prose; and Daniel Borzutzky for his translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia, which won the National Translation Award in Poetry. (NTA information)

On to Frankfurt, where I had lots to do, including speaking several times at the Russian stand about the Read Russia Prize, the art and mechanics of translation (my shortened description), and contemporary Russian literature and formation of a new canon. My fellow panelists were Alexander Nitzberg, Olga Radetzkaja, Christiane Körner, Lev Danilkin, Olga Slavnikova, and Maksim Zamshev, all moderated by Tatyana Voskovskaya and Eugene Reznichenko of, respectively, the Yeltsin Center and the Institute of Translation. Meeting with panelists in other contexts—Olga Radetzkaja, for example, already translated Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog into German—was a highlight, too, as was meeting fellow blogger Tom, proprietor of one of my favorite blogs, Les expectations de hurlevent (formerly known as Wuthering Expectations), and his wife, who just happens to be a literary translator. Tom’s notes on Frankfurt are here… his mentions of the fair’s scale and mystery are just right. (No pun intended.) I was also glad to have a chance to chat with, among others, authors Mikhail Gigolashvili and Alexander Gadol, whose books I’ve enjoyed reading.

Juliet, Oneworld's Read Russia Award for Laurus, and I
The Buchmesse is gargantuan (I saw only a small chunk in my three days…), which made chance meetings all the sweeter: serendipity and coincidence meant I was able to see my publisher, Juliet Mabey of Oneworld Publications, three or four times, and we even had a chance to talk with Guzel Yakhina about my translation of her Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which Oneworld will publish next fall. A final party hosted by Russian publisher Eksmo was a nice final opportunity to visit with some of the literary agents, publishers, and authors I’d already seen at the Buchmesse as well as meet George Slowik, president of Publishers Weekly, who told me about the New York Rights Fair, scheduled for May 30-June 1, 2018… Chad Post mentioned the rights fair in Minneapolis, too. BookExpo America has never exactly been a hotbed of rights activity (at least in my time), so I’m glad someone’s working on this.

Finally, there’s St. Petersburg, where I participated in a roundtable (English version, yes, that’s me/(more complete) Russian version) about the Russian Library project, speaking on specific demands of translating for the English-language Russian Library. I focused on the peer review process and apparatus for my translation of Khemlin’s Klotsvog. I should mention that the roundtable was held at Pushkin House, where we (more on “we” below) were given a French-language tour of the museum and shown various archival materials, including Dostoevsky’s notes for The Brothers Karamazov. (!) That evening I spoke at a Bukvoed bookstore with Eugene Vodolazkin and Liudmila Lupushor about Laurus and the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, which is so important in the book… and which came to life for me in large part thanks to a book that schoolchildren gave me in Arkhangel’sk many years ago. I went with Vodolazkin to a nearby Bukvoed shortly thereafter: he was on the roster for a marathon evening of writer appearances that also included bestselling authors Bernard Werber and Janusz Wiśniewski, both of whom have been widely translated into Russian, as well as Russian authors including Valery Popov and Mikhail Veller.

The biggest surprise of the St. Petersburg trip was that it made me realize how sorry I am that I haven’t kept up with my French over the years: Russia will be the honored guest at the 2018 Salon du livre du Paris so a delegation of journalists/critics and Salon officials, as well as translator Anne Coldefy-Faucard, were in town for the Forum, too, also hosted by the Institute of Translation. I tagged along on many of their arts-related excursions: there was a tram ride that included Silver Age poetry, ride-bys of related sites, and even carrot tea, a surprisingly tasty drink of the era that I’ve run across in my reading and work; the broad-ranging “Art into Life. 1918-1925” exhibit at the Russian Museum; and Tsarskoe Selo, which I’d never visited and which was overwhelmingly beautiful in places, though I can’t say I loved the Amber Room. I visited the Dostoevsky Museum back in 1983 and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) thoroughly enjoyed seeing FMD’s hat and spoon again. (I’d forgotten about his cigarettes… or maybe they weren’t there then?) Oddly, I heard (and even understood) the tour texts during both visits in Russian and with interpretation—into English when I was a student and into French this time around—something that felt vaguely normal, given the subject matter. The Petersburg trip had far too many highlights to mention everything, but an event and dinner with local authors was a perfect example of blending business and pleasure, and I was very glad Vodolazkin showed me places that appear in his books, including the building where both he and engineer Los, of Alexei Tolstoy’s Aelita, lived. (Read all about it, in Russian, here.)

This was my most fun travel season ever but I think that’s plenty of detail… and I won’t even begin to list all the books, both gifts and purchased, that I brought home. I’ll leave that to future posts about the books themselves.

Disclaimers:I was invited to Frankfurt and hosted there by the Yeltsin Center and the Institute of Translation. The Institute of Translation hosted me in St. Petersburg. Numerous people did other nice things for me by sharing their time with me, giving me books, making sure I had enough caffeine in me, and feeding me good food, notably including the very best borscht I’ve eaten. Everything I’ve ever made is just beet soup. Heartfelt thanks to all! Photo credit: Tatyana Voskovskaya.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s rough (in all the right ways) F20; Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; Yulia Yakovleva’s entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), which is set in Leningrad; and upcoming Booker and Big Book winners. I have a lot to catch up on!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The 2017 NOS(E) Award Shortlist

I think the 2017 NOS(E) Award shortlist is (has to be! must be!) the last shortlist (or at least the last major shortlist) for the season. Despite enjoying shortlists, I’m full of hope because I have plenty of books to write about and, well, there’s so much overlap in the award posts this year that the fun started to fade long ago, even if copying and pasting makes it easy to write said posts…

And so, without further ado (as they say), here’s the ten-book list, which was announced late last week. Winners will be announced next February.

  • Olga Breininger: В Советском Союзе не было аддерола (There Was No Adderal in the Soviet Union) certainly has a memorable title. Breininger’s originally from Kazakhstan but lives in Boston. The novel starts off mentioning a conference of Slavists… the book was longlisted for the Debut Prize in 2015.
  • Aleksandr Brener: Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Killed Artists) was a NatsBest finalist. According to the publisher, Hylaea, the book is composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… NatsBest jury reviews are here.
  • Dmitrii Glukhovsky: Текст (Text) is described as a psychological thriller and criminal drama, among other things. Set in Moscow and apparently unpretentious and very present-day, both in terms of language and descriptions. One of you read it and reported enjoying it very much.
  • Vladimir Medvedev: Заххок (part 1) (part 2) (Zahhak), which I’ve already read, is my kind of book. I love the polyphony of seven characters telling about troubled times in Tadzhikistan in the early 1990s and I love how Medvedev interweaves the events in his characters’ lives, blending recent history, archetypes (I don’t think I’m stretching the word too much), and good storytelling. It’s sad and brutal in more ways than one, and it’s an excellent book. Already a finalist for the Yasnaya Polyana and Booker.
  • German Sadulaev: Иван Ауслендер (Ivan Auslender), also shortlisted for the Yasnaya Polyana Award, sounds like it’s about a middle-aged academic who gets pulled into politics and doesn’t like it… so he heads off to travel. Sadulaev is also very good at pulling current-day material into his books.
  • Aleksei Salnikov: Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (Severely tricky title alert, despite having already read a decent chunk of the book! The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu might capture things; this is literally something like “The Petrovs in and around the flu” though I could still be completely missing the point.), which is also a Big Book finalist. I’m reading it right now: it makes me laugh out loud at times and flu symptoms are aptly portrayed, though I wonder if the novel has enough momentum to…
  • Vladimir Sorokin: Манарага (Manaraga), which I read (previous post) and enjoyed. Even if this isn’t Sorokin’s very best, it’s interesting, funny, and, yes, entertaining.
  • Stanislav Snytko: Белая кисть (White Hand (or maybe Paintbrush? or even both?)). Apparently very brief texts with the intended effect of cinematic shots.
  • Anna Tugareva: Иншалла. Чеченский дневник (God Willing. A Chechen Diary) sounds like it’s about Chechen history and identity.
  • Andrei Filimonov: Головастик и святые (known in English as Manikin and the Saints) is represented by the Elkost literary agency so I’ll leave the description to them; it’s here. This book was also a NatsBest finalist; jury reviews are here.

To read judges’ opinions of the books, visit, here. There are lots of fun details.

Disclaimers: The usual. I translated excerpts from Zahhak. The NOS Award is a program of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation. The foundation also runs the Transcript grant program, which has supported many of my translations.

Up Next: Trip report on the American Literary Translators Association conference in Minneapolis and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Books: Zahhak. Anna Kozlova’s F20, about which my feelings are far more mixed. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Tashkent Novel, which I enjoyed.

Farewell to Vladimir Makanin

I was very sad to learn that writer Vladimir Makanin died last week. I enjoyed Makanin’s stories and fiction enough that I listed him first in my “Russian Writers A to Я” post for the letter “M.” Here’s what I wrote about Makanin and his work back in that 2011 post:

I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Vladimir Makanin and found more than enough to consider him a favorite. The very first Makanin line that I read, the beginning of the story “Сюр в Пролетарском районе”(“Surrealism in a Proletarian District”), got me off to a great start: “Человека ловила огромная рука.” (“A huge hand was trying to catch a man.”) (I used the translation in 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories.) The sentence fit my mood and the story caught me, too; I went on to read and love Makanin’s novellas Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead) (previous post).

Later, Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) (previous post) took a couple hundred pages to win me over with its portrayal of a superfluous man for the perestroika era but I ended up admiring the book. Not everything from Makanin has worked for me, though: I didn’t like the Big Book winner Асан (Asan) (previous post) much at all, the Russian Booker-winning Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином посередине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter) didn’t grab me, and I couldn’t finish Испуг (Fear), which felt like a rehashing of Underground. Despite that, I look forward to reading more of Makanin, especially his early, medium-length stories. A number of Makanin’s works are available in translation.

There’s not much that I wrote then that I’d change now, though I do want to add that one of the reasons I started writing this blog ten years ago is that I found so little English-language material about Makanin on the Internet. Makanin left a large body of work: I have several collections that I’ve barely touched and am particularly looking forward to reading more of his early work. It felt fitting that the shelf holding his books caught my eye—thanks to his Asan—in the World Languages section of the Boston Public Library when I visited yesterday with my brother, who also thoroughly enjoyed Escape Hatch and The Long Road Ahead.